DURHAM, N.H. – Dartmouth may be ready to turn a corner and not just be a young, promising team anymore. The latest evidence came on Wednesday night, when they lost a lead they held for a while and answered right back with a game-changing 12-0 run to take the lead for good, and then later put away an opponent on the road.
“In the past, when teams would make a run and come back, we would collapse,” said junior forward Gabas Maldunas, who had 12 points and 13 rebounds in their 62-48 win at New Hampshire. “We didn’t have the leadership on the court to help us get through the comeback.”
The Big Green have been a young and promising team of late, having put together a few good recruiting classes in a row. The talent base is up markedly from when head coach Paul Cormier returned to the school for a second stint over three years ago. Looking at the starting lineup and seeing four underclassmen who all lead in scoring and average in double figures is indicative of that, for one. None is an elite scorer, but they all add something to this team.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Dartmouth lacked a single double-digit scorer. In fact, for two years in a row they didn’t have a player average in double figures in scoring. With Tyler Melville, who scored a game-high 17 points on Wednesday night, not far off at over nine points per game and several contributing in more limited minutes and roles, scoring is not a problem now.
The team’s growth is visible all over. Many players have improved in the stat sheet, whether it’s by scoring and/or rebounding more, but it’s not just one area. Sophomore point guard Alex Mitola is shooting a little better than last season and now has more assists than turnovers after the opposite was true last season. Melville, the only senior on the team, has improved his shooting every season to where he’s now deadly from long range, shooting 46 percent on three-pointers. Maldunas’ scoring is down, but his rebounding has jumped to nearly double digits and he’s shooting a career-best 50 percent from the field. Sophomore Connor Boehm has made a nice jump as well, and junior John Golden has been the consummate glue guy who scores and has 21 assists with nine turnovers on the season.
Mitola’s growth is a key as the team’s point guard. He has the ball in his hands the most, and he’s a guy Cormier really worked on last year. His jump shot looks unorthodox, but he’s nearly a 40 percent shooter from long range in his young career.
“Alex is a huge part of this team,” said Melville. “His leadership on and off the court has been huge for us. I think our chemistry has really helped him and our team as a whole really execute to perfection.”
The Big Green talked about how the chemistry has developed over the past couple of seasons. Now that this core has had a couple of years together, and they have grown up as college players, they have a maturity individually and collectively that they didn’t have. It didn’t develop quickly. Cormier talked about enjoying the process, painful as the losing that came with it was, now that the team is showing that they are growing up. He saw some signs of this at the end of last season, and now sees them picking up from there.
A big part of this is accountability and trust. The players can see the difference in both respects, and watching them you can see it as well, especially with how well they move the ball offensively. They all know that they’re in this together, and the trust comes when one player holds someone accountable.
“I feel like we’re not afraid to get on each other this year like in past years,” said Maldunas. “We would take criticism the wrong way. If a teammate said something, we would just let it go. This year, we really trust each other, and when someone says something to you, you take it personally and don’t want to let your team down.”
This is an important season for the core of the Big Green in terms of their overall direction. They look to be a bit of a wild card heading into the home stretch of non-league play, and that will probably remain the case. They have four games in a row at home and squeeze in a trip to St. John’s in between their two meetings with Harvard before Ivy League play begins in earnest. It’s not hard to imagine them going 3-1 or even winning all four home games, and while the strength of schedule means we might not know much more about how good this team is, they should have more confidence in that scenario and that won’t hurt.
The Ivy League is looking better this year, and Dartmouth could well be part of that. Harvard is the prohibitive favorite, but Princeton can’t be ruled out, Penn and Yale have looked like they can contend and Brown has good talent but is young. With a little confidence and continued maturity, the Big Green could get into the mix near the top, and having five games in a row at home early on can’t hurt.
Cormier talked about how good the league has looked and as such how his team needs to continue growing. Wednesday night was one more step in that direction, one more sign that this team may be turning a corner from a team with potential to a team that can contend.